The writer who gave us `arnjoos'

Baltimorese: It was a Texas native who first collected our odd habits of speech.

July 17, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

John Goodspeed, the premier lexicographer of Baltimorese, orders a drink at the clubhouse of the Easton Club Golf Course with precise instructions: "I'm going to have a Stoli vodka martini, with a twist, straight up and very dry. That means four drops of vermouth."

Still briskly urbane at 80, but no longer urban, Goodspeed chronicled with equal precision the folkways, fantasies and foibles of Baltimoreans from 1951 to 1967 as the auteur of the late and much-lamented "Mr. Peep's Diary," an Evening Sun column still remembered as one of "Balamer's" finest.

He looks splendid, older, of course, and a bit grizzled, rather like an aging but still active Texas Ranger. He lives about two miles down the road in a very handsomely converted chicken house at Cedar Point Farm on the Tred Avon River with his fourth wife, Anne Stinson, a talented writer, columnist and editor in her own right.

Their living room is a comfortable place with lots of paintings and drawings on the walls, flowers, chests and highboys made by Anne, a grand piano and a more or less life-size 400-pound bronze of a gorilla, titled "Ismael."

"I bought it for her," Goodspeed says, "from a sculptor named Bart Walter."

The gorilla's name refers neither to the biblical Ismael nor the narrator of Moby Dick, but to the hero of some cheap novel.

"Anne loves this thing. She calls it `Bubba,'" he says.

"I wouldn't move back to Baltimore from here for anything, frankly. And I enjoyed a lot about Baltimore for almost 50 years," he says. But he doesn't miss much. "A few people I like talking to. Most of them are gone now. And the city is so very changed."

His Mr. Peep's columns do read now like a prolonged elegy for a lost Baltimore. And even Baltimorese may be endangered as old-time neighborhoods such as Canton, Locust Point, Fells Point and Highlandtown become gentrified by the linguistically pallid.

His column took name and logo from the brilliant 17th century London diarist Samuel Pepys, whose name was pronounced "Peeps."

"Corny name, Mr. Peep's," Goodspeed says. "I think Harry Black coined the name. He was chairman of the board, old-time playboy is what he was. Last man I saw wear spats in the morning. Very rich man, coal and iron money from Pennsylvania. I always had to explain I didn't think of that name, for god's sake."

In 1960, he published his first "Fairly Compleat Lexicon of Baltimorese," which included among its 130 words such classics as arhn for iron, arnjoos/orange juice, authoritis/arthritis, cornish/cornice, Druidl/Druid Hill, fahr/fire, Murlin/Maryland, Paramour/power mower, tarred/tired, warn/wiring and, or course, zinc/sink.

Baltimore is pronounced "Balamer" in the Goodspeed lexicon.

"That's the way it sounded to me," he says. Bal as in Balmoral, not bawl as in a crying jag. "The middle `a' is very faint," he says.

He always called it "Baltimorese," too, not "Bawlmerese," as current fashion has it.

"That's a formal term, so to speak," he says. "I don't think Baltimoreans would use it much. Because a lot of them don't realize that they're speaking a dialect, as most dialect people don't.

"You know I did a parody in Baltimorese of `The Night Before Christmas,'" he says. "The hardest thing I ever wrote. To work in the Baltimorese words, that was the hard part. It was not quite the same story, of course."

He published "A Visit to Balamer by Sandy Clouse," on the night before Christmas 1963.

"Christmas Eve was owen a Chewsday, and owl through air Balamer hame, Nothink was gaying owen: not even a television was owen. My kits' socks were owl laundried and hung up, preparred By the chimbley for Sandy so he wouldn't get tarred, Squinching rayon to conjexture where to gayo with the tuoys- Dowels for the girls, nucular bums for the buoys. . . " Etc. Etc.

Goodspeed had been collecting Baltimorese snippets in his Mr. Peep's column for nearly a decade before he published his fairly compleat lexicon.

"It went on for years and years. I had a lot of people making supposed contributions," he says. "By the way, one word I do not think is Baltimorese at all is `hon,' h-o-n. Because I've heard `hon' in Texas, in New York, Chicago a lot and in New Orleans. That's four places other than Baltimore. It's almost always spoken by women, usually working class, but not always, sometimes they're educated women, too. But I don't think it should be Baltimorese."

`Wrenching' the dishes

He began noticing Baltimorese as soon as he arrived in town in September 1941. He'd grown up in Fort Worth, Texas, but he didn't bring much of a drawl with him. His mother was from an old Texas family, but his father was a Yankee from Michigan. Goodspeed had come north to work in the Glenn L. Martin Co., making war planes in Middle River.

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